IN CAIRO, EGYPT
Algeria shredded the Fifa world rankings to smithereens in a 24-nation Africa Cup of Nations whose expansion magnified the challenges host organisers face even as minor teams seized their opportunity to rock the established continental order in 30 days of memorable competition.
The final on Friday at the famous Cairo International Stadium was an anti-climax. Expected to showcase African football, the match never hit the desired standards as the reality of playing in an all-stakes final match somehow affected the players.
Once Algerian striker Bagdhad Bounedjah scored his fortuitous goal in the second minute, Algeria, who had exhibited a beautiful, quick passing, attacking game, withdrew into a defensive wall. They let the desperate Senegalese press agonise all evening for an equaliser but even with Liverpool marksman Sadio Mane in their ranks the Teranga Lions just could not draw any blood in the 0-1 loss.
Play-acting by the players – easily going down and rolling theatrically like Neymar at the slightest contact - was a feature in the tournament, and it played out time and again in the admittedly disappointing final.
But looking at the final in the context of history, neither team deserved to lose. Algeria were chasing their first title in 29 years while Senegal were looking for their maiden crown.
Algeria, under local man Djamel Belmadi, came into the tournament ranked 12th in the continent and went ahead to thump the continent’s top team Senegal, not once, but twice to leave Egypt as the new champions of Africa.
The lively, travelling Algerian fans added colour to a tournament that has struggled to fill the stadiums throughout its history. Fifty-two matches were staged in Egypt in this expanded Nations Cup that featured 24 teams, up from 16 the previous edition. But apart from fixtures that involved hosts Egypt, and perhaps the final match, all other encounters were played in virtually empty stadiums.
And with only six venues used, organisers were forced to have double headers that brought the challenge of organising two fixtures at the same venue on the same day.
'DID NOT DISAPPOINT'
Egypt had only months to prepare for the football jamboree after original hosts Cameroon were stripped of hosting rights because of lack of preparedness.
Africa’s third most populous nation, that had staged this tournament four times before, did not disappoint.
They were especially praised for their excellent pitches and facilities in general. The local organising committee revealed they had 24 training grounds and an additional six also available for use.
The next hosts Cameroon have their work clearly cut out for them in 2021.
The debate still rages on about Caf’s decision to increase the tournament from 16 to 24 teams. The so called minor football nations solidly argued the case for an expanded tournament on the pitch.
Debutants Mauritania, Burundi and Madagascar pushed the big boys hard and registered some good results. Madagascar were the surprise package stunning three-time champions Nigeria 2-0 in the group stages on the way to a memorable quarter-final appearance.
Kenya and Tanzania made a return after 15 and 39 years respectively and even though they failed to make the knock-outs, they served up a thrilling “East Africa Derby” - one of the matches of the tournament - in their group encounter, won by Harambee Stars 3-2.
Kenya coach Sebastien Migne talked about the inexperience of his young team and the lessons they had learnt. However, it is worth noting for Kenya that player of tournament was Algeria’s 22-year-old midfielder Ismael Bennacer, playing in his first Nations Cup, and with only three international caps to his name before the tournament kicked off.
Michael Olunga, with two goals to his name, was Kenya’s brightest spark and with better service could have realistically vied for the Golden Boot that went to Nigeria’s Odion Ighalo who netted five times.
Many coaches at the tournament talked about the gap between the big and small football nations disappearing. But clearly, a set of class players, and perhaps some luck is needed to win the Africa Cup of Nations title.